Vesper Sparrow Fantasia

Vesper Sparrow male singing in an apple tree at sunriseVesper Sparrows are gorgeous small birds – a wonderful study in shades of brown. They are found in open habitats where they typically prefer some bare ground in the fields were they nest. Males sing, from elevated perches, a plaintive song that perfectly matches their open, often bleak-looking home. I think that the Vesper sparrow’s song is the prefect complement to these open grassy vistas, adding a hint of loneliness through the ears in concert with what the eyes are seeing.

Vesper Sparrows are found all across the United States in one season or another. The breeding range extends from the southern Appalachians northward into Canada and well into Canada’s western provinces, then all the way south to nearly the Mexican boarder in Arizona and New Mexico.

Vesper sparrow male singing in an apple tree at sunrise

Vesper Sparrow song is composed of pure, whistled notes, trills, and buzzy elements. It appears that all of the neighboring males in one field will share the same introductory whistles and perhaps the first few syllables of their song. Their songs are complex in that the males have a repertoire of perhaps 50 syllables that they can mix and match to compose a song. The endings of songs are the most dynamic and with the adding and dropping of syllables almost no two songs are alike.

Below is a recording of a male Vesper Sparrow singing his marvelous song from the roadside power lines in Antietam National Battlefield, MD:
 

Male Vesper sparrow singing at close range, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. July 20, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.

During the breeding season males defend their territories from other Vesper Sparrows. At times, they may chase an interloper away at high speed, sometimes uttering an amazing burst of notes, trills, and buzzes:

Male Vesper sparrow singing while chasing another Vesper Sparrow, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. July 23, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.

However, the real show stopper is the extremely rarely performed and even more rarely observed “flight song” of the Vesper Sparrow. Apparently, this display is mostly reserved for the end of the breeding season when the final nest is empty and the young have fledged. There are very few reports of what the male does during this flight display – here is my account. Patiently, quietly sitting on a perch, the male gives no indication of what is to come. Launching into the air as if hit by a jolt of electricity the male flutters slowly, almost straight up until he reaches a height of 30 feet. At this point he produces a frothing of notes, trills and buzzes that can only be an expression of total joy – “The breeding season is over and the kids are out on their own!” While in this exuberance he flies only a few feet higher on his fluttering wings. In the last few seconds of his song he turns sharply and flies down to another nearby perch where he sits quietly for a few minutes.

Here is my recording of the flight song of a male Vesper Sparrow:

The amazing flight song of the Vesper sparrow, Antietam National Battlefield, MD. August 5, 2012 © Wil Hershberger.

Isn’t that amazing? It is a shame that this wonderful, special song isn’t given more often so that more people could experience the bliss of this display.

Vesper sparrow habitat within the Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland.Typical Vesper sparrow habitat. Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland.

Upon a pasture stone,
Against the fading west,
A small bird sings alone,
Then dives and finds a nest.

Edith Thomas

Comments

  1. Zack Frieben says:

    Thanks Wil! It was just a fluke that that happened. I tried loading it again and it worked. Maybe my computer jinxed me or something.

  2. Hello Zack,
    The first recording is a long one. Perhaps your connection is timing out or something. It appears to be working correctly here. Allow the recording several minutes to load.
    Thank you,

  3. Zack Frieben says:

    I like these recordings, but for some reason, the first recording stops loading altogether. Is this just my computer, or is there really something wrong?

  4. Randy Little says:

    Spectacular recordings! Had you imagined this in 1995?

    • Hello Randy,
      No, I couldn’t have imagined this in 1995. It was Jeff Wells paper about the Vesper Sparrow flight song and my own obsession with flight song that lead me to spend so much time with these sparrows. I have over 1000 songs recorded from one male, the male that did the flight song, and over 600 songs from this male’s closest neighbor. I hope to do a study similar to Don Kroodsma’s regarding the organization of the song of Vesper Sparrows. After looking at hundreds of spectrograms, I am seeing some patterns of organization that might be interesting to explore further. Perhaps we can glimpse a little of what is on the mind of a singing male Vesper Sparrow.

    • Hi there Randy! Where be you these days? I well remember our last visit in New Jersey, with Don Kroodsma in attendance!

  5. Thank you Lisa. I really enjoy listening to the flight song of the Vesper Sparrow. It just seems so jubilant to me, it makes me smile every time I hear it.
    Thanks again,
    Wil

  6. Lisa Rainsong says:

    What a wonderful addition to the blog! I really enjoyed being able to listen to the different songs (and see the sonograms as well). The flight song is so splendid – congratulations on recording this and thank you for sharing it!

  7. Thank you Marie. It is certainly a matter of luck in getting a recording of flight song. In something like 50 hours of being in the territory of the two males there were most accessible, I heard flight song three times. Once during a chase, the other that is here and one that happened behind me and I missed entirely. The hardest part is staying alert and ready every second. But, it paid off. I was back at this spot this morning, there was very little primary song and no flight songs that I could hear.
    Thanks again,

  8. Marie Read says:

    That flight song is simply wonderful!

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